Leadership, Partnership, & Stewardship…the three ships that carried Calvin Grayson through his career

The room at the Boone Center was almost ready. Since 8:30, KTC’s Marketing Materials and Resources Group had been carefully setting up the room. The lights were luminous and radiant, three cameras faced two chairs, hot coffee and bagels sat atop a table. Everything was all set! What would have three people in a state of not-quite-near panic, but rather intent on the pursuit of perfection? A Hollywood celebrity? Possibly a political big wig? No. Even better than that!

As part of the Center’s new video series, The History of KTC, we are speaking with people who have made important contributions to the transportation industry in Kentucky and have significantly impacted the trajectory of KTC. Today we had landed, for lack of a better way to describe him, a titan of the Kentucky Transportation world: Calvin Grayson!

“Who is he?” some of our younger readers may ask. We were not entirely sure of who he was ourselves. Often spoken of in reverential tones by our colleagues, awareness of his wisdom, abilities, and integrity precede him. Now 93 years old, Mr. Grayson is a former Secretary of the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet and retired director of KTC. During his tenure at KTC, he worked to fuse the research and technology transfer functions, creating the organization that KTC is today. In addition to these accomplishments, he occupied numerous roles at the Cabinet: State Transportation Planning Engineer, Assistant State Highway Engineer, Assistant Director of Planning, Design Engineer, and Bridge Design Engineer.

Everyone was nervous as we awaited Mr. Grayson’s arrival. We were individually asking the good Lord to PLEASE not let us make fools of ourselves. Finally, soft as a whisper, and without one bit of warning or fanfare, an older fellow entered the room followed by Director Joe Crabtree. This spry and lively looking man, dressed in a light-colored houndstooth tweed patterned jacket and a black shirt, was Calvin Grayson. That old parable about the best gifts you will ever receive coming in an unassuming package was, in this case, absolutely correct!

Mr. Grayson always has a good story to tell and he knows how to keep an audience spellbound. For a person who has collected so many accolades, we were surprised to learn that he had to be convinced to take his first job at the highway department, and had a very humble, almost reluctant beginning to his long career.

But his energy, his positive attitude, and strong work ethic resulted in a long list of accomplishments, in addition to him being the first professional engineer to hold the position of State Highway Engineer. Mr. Grayson has been inducted into the University of Kentucky’s Hall of Distinguished Alumni, was named one of the national “Top Ten Public Works Leaders” by the American Public Works Association, received the S. S. Steinberg Award from the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, received the Donald C. Stone Award from the American Public Works Association, and was given the Outstanding Engineer in Government Award from the Kentucky Society of Professional Engineers. There are many more achievements listed on the Transportation Hall of Fame page. Despite having collected so many accolades throughout his career, we were surprised to learn that it can be traced to a humble, almost reluctant beginning — he had to be persuaded to take his first job at the Kentucky Highway Department! Even in retirement, Mr. Grayson remains a passionate transportation advocate and expressed concern for the future of transportation and how projects are funded. He has a saying: transportation equals mobility equals accessibility. He seeks and gathers the information that form his ideas by reading, networking, and nurturing the many friendships forged throughout his lifetime.

As the interview progressed, our dialogue ranged widely, often going beyond transportation and history. He deftly nudged the conversation onto topics ranging from personal beliefs to principles on how to live a better life — principles that many of us are still learning and only someone like Calvin, who has fully weathered them, truly understands. One thing he wanted to be sure his audience would understand is that marketing is the key to achieving success, wryly observing that “if you don’t blow your own horn, someone else will use it as a spittoon,” and “you can’t do enough marketing.”

Calvin Grayson is not only a legend in Kentucky Transportation; he is a world War II Veteran, a man of faith, a father, a husband, an ally, and a compatriot. He emphasized the three ships that have carried him through his career, and mentioned one more ship that is as important as the first three put together: Friendship. “Friendship is better than medication for living a long life,” Mr. Grayson said.

There were several instances of teary eyes from the marketing team with protestations of “It’s just allergies,” and more than a few stifled giggles (we were filming after all) when pearls of wisdom mixed with his easy humor. He reminded us to take life seriously but to maintain a surefooted sense of humor.

Mr. Grayson is inarguably a legend in Kentucky’s transportation industry. We were fortunate to capture the day with film and photos, creating and cataloguing a treasure trove of wisdom and memories from a man who has seen vast changes in American transportation. We consider ourselves privileged to meet a man who is not only a leader to some and mentor to many, but a friend to all.